Fantasy Fishing: Santee Cooper gut check

After two historically bad events, I’m either due for a good one or destined to be sent to the glue factory. This horse race of a Bassmaster Elite Series season has turned into a marathon, and now we head to the hilliest, muddiest unknown stretch of the 26.2-mile route – South Carolina’s Santee Cooper.

In a season best characterized by entropy and unpredictability, I’m giving up on the pretense of any strategy behind my picks. This is not the time to look for offshore specialists or froggers. Nor can I depend on momentum, either good or bad, or the “will to win.” Instead I’m just going with a random hodgepodge of five anglers who are comfortable in their own skin and need to make something happen.

With that as prologue, here are my picks for what I expect to be the most random, least predictable event so far, and that’s saying a lot.

BUCKET A: SOUTHERN HAMMERS

My pick: Bucket A is always a tough one to pick because it tends to be slap full of anglers who are at the top of their game, and this year is no different. That leads me to pick anglers this week who have extensive experience fishing in the Mid-Sputh in the fall. Buddy Gross fits that description, and if he can excel here then the next stop in his backyard puts him in position to make a run at the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title.

Backup: Last year’s AOY Scott Canterbury held his own at Guntersville and rose to fourth in the AOY standings, with a distinct chance to repeat his title. Every time we expected him to falter last year he stepped up to the plate and made contact, so there’s no reason to believe he’ll let off the gas this time around.

BUCKET B: PALMETTO STATE STALWARTS

My pick: When in doubt, go with anglers who have lots of experience on a given body of water, and young pro Patrick Walters may have more experience on Marion and Moultrie than anyone else in the field. It doesn’t hurt that he catches them everywhere, too.

Backup: Todd Auten is quiet, but he has years of experience both nationally and locally. If there’s a ChatterBait bite, expect him to be near the top. 

BUCKET C: BOUNCE BACK BRACKET

My pick: Coming off an event at St. Clair where few expected him to excel and he finished third, John Cox struggled at Guntersville, where many of us expected him to contend. He’s still inside the Classic cut, but barely, and I figure he’ll wiggle that Crestliner in between the trees at Santee and find something no one else does.

Backup: Like Cox, Brandon Lester is in danger of slipping outside of the Classic cut, but in order to do so he can’t struggle like he did at Guntersville and St. Clair. He should bounce back nicely.

BUCKET D: JUNK FISHING EXPERTS

My pick: With so many veterans struggling this year, and so many relative unknowns doing well, I still expect some of those vets to make a late-season comeback. One of those is Bill Lowen. Like Cox, if there’s a shallow water bite he’ll find it, and his struggles this past week at Guntersville won’t faze him in the least.

Backup: Gerald Swindle is another pro having a distinctly uncharacteristic year, although he bounced back from a tough Day 1 in Alabama with enough weight on Day 2 to make the cut. The tiebreaker between him and Lowen is that Swindle might rather be in the woods than on the water this time of year.

BUCKET E: CLASSIC RETURNS

My pick: Despite their status in Bucket E, which usually reflects some sort of struggles, some of the anglers in this bracket still have an outside chance at the Classic — and at making some money before the season ends — so go with someone who’s been there before. My choice is Caleb Sumrall, who has been to two Classics, and knows his way around a swamp.

Backup: If Sumrall doesn’t excite you, go with Lee Livesay, who after a rookie season in which virtually nothing went wrong seems to be having the opposite luck this year. There’s nothing that says he won’t start catching them, and with his home waters as the site of the season’s last event, a push at Santee and Chickamauga might make for an interesting final surge.

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